U.S., Europeans Planning Own Iran Sanctions

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner speak to reporters about Iran and nuclear weapons.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner speak to reporters about Iran and nuclear weapons. (By Mark Wilson -- Getty Images)

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By Robin Wright
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 22, 2007

The United States and its European allies are preparing to impose their own broad military and economic sanctions against Iran if Russia and China balk at voting for a tough new resolution at the United Nations, according to U.S. and European officials.

The breakaway diplomacy would impose a kind of "sanctions of the willing" on Iran, a Western diplomat said, playing off the "coalition of the willing" that was mobilized after diplomacy at the United Nations did not produce support for military action in Iraq.

The State Department yesterday hosted all-day talks with the four other permanent members of the Security Council -- Britain, China, France and Russia -- and Germany, to try to hash out the parameters of a new resolution on the eve of the U.N. General Assembly meetings in New York.

In talks the State Department described as "serious and constructive," the six agreed to proceed, after months of delays, with a third U.N. resolution punishing Iran. But deep differences remain on both substance and timing, with the United States and the Europeans on one side and Russia and China on the other, said officials from several delegations.

The Bush administration is pushing for the world's top powers to impose punitive measures that could include sanctioning branches of Iran's military -- such as parts of the Revolutionary Guards' al-Quds Force -- rather than individual military leaders of those units, as in past resolutions, U.S. and Western officials said. The goal is to pressure entities that have allegedly participated in weapons of mass destruction programs, the sources said.

Washington is also looking to curtail Iran's ability to import military equipment, such as Russian air defense systems. It also wants to tighten the noose on banks and companies connected to the acquisition of suspicious military materiel. And it wants to strengthen the travel ban that prevents Iranian officials from traveling, vacationing and performing other activities abroad, the officials said.

"We want to close all loopholes and suck the oxygen out of the room," said a U.S. official involved in the diplomacy. Winning agreement from all five veto-wielding members of the Security Council, however, will be a "Sisyphean undertaking," he said.

Russia and China have resisted both the scope and the timing of punitive measures proposed by the Bush administration. Moscow and Beijing would prefer to let the new process started by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) play out for another two months and possibly longer, U.S. and European officials said. The IAEA plan calls for Iran to account for questions about its past activities, something that Washington maintains will allow Tehran to stall.

"The IAEA work plan to resolve past questions is well and good and a necessary part of the answer, but it's insufficient. You must address the present as well as the future of the Iranian nuclear program, and [the IAEA plan] doesn't do that in any form," said a senior State Department official knowledgeable about the talks.

Russia also does not want any action on a new resolution before a scheduled Oct. 16 visit by Russian President Vladimir Putin to Tehran, his first visit to the Islamic republic, European sources said.

By contrast, Washington has wanted a new resolution since June. The time requirement of the previous U.N. resolution -- which demands that Iran suspend uranium enrichment, a process for peaceful nuclear energy that can be subverted to make a bomb -- expired in May.

Frustrated by the delay and the diplomatic divide, Washington and its allies are developing a parallel track to the U.N. effort in the event that a third resolution ends up only modestly increasing pressure on Iran, after the first two resolutions passed in December and March proved weak and difficult to implement, the sources said. "We're not talking about either/or tracks. We'll continue on the U.N. track, but we also have the track of the U.S.-EU," the State Department official said.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is scheduled to meet with the foreign ministers of the "P5-plus-1" countries Friday at the United Nations to hash out final positions. Participants describe the U.S.-led diplomacy yesterday and next week as a last-ditch effort to find common ground.

U.S. and European envoys are pessimistic about uniting behind a tough resolution anytime in the near future. They have made clear to Moscow and Beijing that they intend to move forward on a U.S.-European Union sanctions package if a third U.N. resolution is delayed or is too weak, senior officials involved in the diplomacy said.

"We have to follow the negotiations. Meanwhile, we are working with experts in order to organize real, efficient sanctions, apart from an eventual . . . resolution in the U.N. system," French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner told reporters and editors at The Washington Post yesterday. Working with Russia and China for a strong resolution would be "much better," he added. In the meantime, "we are working on sanctions with the British, the Germans, the Dutch; and the Italians have said they are not in disagreement."

The dynamics of the international diplomacy on Iran have shifted significantly since the election in May of conservative French President Nicolas Sarkozy. Once leading the skeptics of the Iraq war, France has become the most outspoken U.S. ally in the campaign to pressure Iran on its nuclear program.

Staff writer Glenn Kessler contributed to this report.


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